Saturday, September 22, 2007

Discourse of the Master

Something that's always struck me as odd in my readings in philosophy and intellectual history is how some authors get more truth-scrutiny than others. Nobody, at least in this century, asks whether Spinoza's writings are true, tries to refute them, assumes that they're false, or thinks that they would be worthless if their claims could be discredited. And if you think about most of the big and small figures in the history of philosophy, from Leibniz to Wittgenstein, or even social and political thought, from Machiavelli to Max Weber, this is generally the mode in which they're received.

There are exceptions, of course, and two of the big ones are two of the most important writers of the last two centuries -- Marx and Freud. A lot of people love Marx and Freud -- Michel Foucault wrote that the two "founders of discourse" had somehow managed to "author" even texts in their tradition that disagreed with them -- but even more hate their German-speaking guts. Attacks on Marx and Freud often rest implicitly on this expand notion of "authorship," in Foucault's sense of political/intellectual responsibility: Marx and Freud aren't just responsible for their thought but its consequences. And trashing Karl and Sigmund is so commonplace, the attacks so often repeated, that the assumption is that the two have each been consigned to the dustbin of quacks and frauds, more like phrenologists or astrologists than German philosophers.

So the beginning of this NYT op-ed by UVA lit prof Mark Edmundson on the 68th anniversary on Freud's death reads a little like some of the essays about Jack Kerouac in the last few weeks:

SIGMUND Freud died 68 years ago today, and it remains uncertain whether he is what W. H. Auden called him, “a whole climate of opinion / Under whom we conduct our differing lives,” or whether he is completely passé. It’s still not clear whether Freud was the genius of the 20th century, a comprehensive absurdity or something in between.

But if you keep reading, it's actually a nice take on what Freud and later psychoanalysis was/is all about. Consider this observation on Freudian "transference," where a patient transfers his/her submerged or idealized feelings onto the analyst:
Frequently they sought from him what they’d sought from their parents when they were children. They wanted perfect love, and even more fervently, it seems, they wanted perfect truth. They became obsessed with Freud as what Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalytic theorist, liked to call “the subject who is supposed to know.” Patients saw Freud as an all-knowing figure who had the wisdom to solve all their problems and make them genuinely happy and whole.

Freud’s objective as a therapist was to help his patients dismantle their idealized image of him. He taught them to see how the love they demanded from him was love that they had once demanded (and of course never received) from fathers and mothers and other figures of authority. Over time, the patients might come to view the doctor — Freud — as another suffering, striving mortal, not unlike themselves.

Part of this dismantling includes (as Edmundson points out) recognizing that Freud had his own issues with authority -- that is, he really liked having it -- and that his relationships with colleagues were fraught with exactly these same problems. But if you expect someone to always be a master, i.e., "a subject who knows," than all that person can do is disappoint. His fall will be like the fall of a God.

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